It was cold. It was dark. Something that couldn’t decide whether to be rain or snow was flying out of the sky, stinging my face like tiny hot needles. It was hard work riding my bike through the squishy piles of gritty half-melted snow, especially since the closer I got, the less I wanted to get there.

I was going to meet my best friends in the whole world for the first time.

A police car slowed as it drove past me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a blur of a face checking me out. A black kid out on the streets at night, can’t be too careful. I stared straight ahead, trying to look law-abiding and harmless. The cruiser sped up suddenly, kicking up icy slush that drenched my jeans. I channeled my anger into pedaling harder. It actually warmed me up a little, so it wasn’t all bad.

The old warehouse where the meet-up was happening turned out to be almost hidden under a bridge beside some railroad tracks. The place looked abandoned, with boarded-up windows, surrounded by a chain link fence with spirals of razor wire on top. I stopped and checked the instructions on my phone to be sure. Though it didn’t seem right, this was the place.

It looked so dead I wondered if the meet-up might have been called off, which set off a weird, wobbly feeling in my chest, half relief, half disappointment. The building looked like nobody had set foot inside it for decades, but as I coasted down the side street I saw an open gate. Some cars were parked inside, near a set of concrete steps leading to a rusty metal door. I chained my bike to a railing, then went up the crumbling steps, feeling weird.

I was going to finally meet ferret and Gargle and Fa1staff, all members of the Group. They were like family, only better because they got my jokes and were always there no matter how late it was, and they understood how beautiful code could be. They would drop everything and hack if somebody needed a hand. I had an awful feeling I was about to ruin everything.

My clothes felt stiff, as if the night had frozen around me and was trying to stop me from going any further. It was only eight in the evening, but in Minneapolis in November, it’s so dark it might as well be midnight. My stomach ached so much I tried pushing my fist against where it hurt. It didn’t help.

They knew everything about me. Except who I really was.

The rusty metal door at the top of the concrete steps seemed to be locked, but when I gave it a good shove with my shoulder, it creaked open. Inside it was even darker. I ran the beam of the mini-flashlight clipped to my keychain around the big room. It was empty except for some smashed-up wooden pallets and dirt. Following the instructions ferret had sent out, I climbed a metal staircase to the second floor, the sound of my boots echoing in the big, dark, empty space.

There was a faint light at the top of the stairs, coming from behind another rusty metal door propped open with a folded-up pizza box. Inside I could smell beer and pizza and heard laughter and loud, confident voices. I began to feel a weird hot buzzing at the back of my neck, a familiar feeling when I’m getting angry.

The second floor was a big, dark, open space just like downstairs except that in the middle there was cloth draped from the ceiling, silvery fabric that swooped down, forming a big circle like a yurt or a Bedouin tent, glowing with lanterns inside. The fabric was tied back to make an opening. I took a deep breath and stepped through it. Everyone inside the tent turned.

They stared at me, holding up beer bottles halfway to their mouths, slices of pizza drooping in their hands, like a weird game of freeze tag.

“Can I help you?” one of them finally asked in a snotty voice. He was a skinny guy who was wearing the kind of glasses that cost a fortune, his beard the perfect, fashionable I-forgot-to-shave-this-morning length. His voice had that thing in it, that “who are you and what makes you think you have a right to be here?” kind of warning you hear when they see the wrong people coming too close.

They thought I was a kid who’d blundered into the wrong place, some loser, not the kind of person who could be part of the Group. Not their buddy Shad, which was the name I used online. Shad the Shadow, a fast-typing geek who could troubleshoot a program or write a nice routine as fast as any of them.

They knew all about me, but I’d never given them a chance to find out my real name, or that I was only fifteen, that my skin was shades darker than theirs, that I didn’t have any money and didn’t wear those skinny jeans that are impossible to find at the thrift stores where I bought my clothes, even if I could fit into them, which I couldn’t. That I could make it to a meet-up in my home town by bus or bicycle, but I would never, ever just happen to be in Bangkok or San Francisco or Berlin where the other meet-ups had happened. Up to this moment, they thought Shad was one of them. Not a black kid dressed in stupid clothes with outta control hair.

That buzzing feeling was growing stronger. It usually meant I should back away, chill out. Too many times it had gotten me into fights. It felt like something was about to get broken, smashed into a million pieces. It felt like anger and sorrow were chasing each other in circles in my stomach, making me feel jittery and sick.

I should have realized they would all be grownups, all white, all rich, the kind of people who got invited to speak at cybersecurity conferences and had money to travel. They looked nerdy in a geeky-hipster way. They looked like each other, a matched set. But they stared at me like I was a freak and I came close to telling them I had made a mistake so I could turn and head down the stairs and bike home to my attic apartment with its mothball-smelly bedroom under the eaves, and they would keep thinking that Shad, who typed fast and fixed code and cracked jokes, was just like them.

Then one of the matched set smacked his head. “Oh my god. You’re Shad.”

I teetered on the edge of denying it. But I finally nodded, feeling sick. Feeling stabby. Feeling like I’d just busted something precious that could never be glued back together.

“Wow. It’s so great to meet you. We just didn’t . . .” He looked around. “I’m sorry. For some reason I always assumed . . .”

Another one finished the sentence he couldn’t seem to complete. “We didn’t know you were a girl.”

~ ~ ~

It had all started the previous day with an encrypted message:

<wheeze> Your brother just got busted.

A photo was attached, showing a familiar ramshackle house in the middle of the block, Wilson’s bike chained to the porch railing next to pots full of plants that had died because nobody remembered to take them inside when it got cold. In front of the house, there was a traffic jam of police cars. A herd of big guys in windbreakers with letters on them were standing around looking muscular and mean, somehow swaggering even though they were standing still. There was also a mean-looking woman with a ponytail sticking out of her hat. A hat that said FBI on it.

“Crap!” It slipped out, too loud.

The girl who had taken over most of the table I was sitting at in the library looked up at me and frowned, giving me that prissy “don’t you know the rules?” look. I pushed my chair back, enjoying the squeeeeeee  it made on the floor that made her squinch up her face in pain. I yanked my power cord out of the plug, grabbed my stuff, and headed for the stairs. I needed to talk to Wheeze, and for that I needed privacy.

But once I had pushed my way out of the front doors of the library, I couldn’t think straight for a few minutes. I was worried about Wilson, but for some reason I was even more pissed off at the skinny blond girl with perfect nails and too much makeup who acted like Shut UP! I have a thesis to write! I need quiet so  I can focus! Yeah, right. She’d invaded my space so she could plug her computer into the outlet I was using and cover my table with her stuff. Then she spent the whole time messing around on Instagram.

I realized I was shivering. It had been hot in the library, but outside I could see my breath. I couldn’t see much else because it was one of those days when somebody had left the cosmic fog machine on overnight, so the world was filled with a grainy, moist grayness that made everything look like it was one of those pictures in an old book behind a layer of tissue paper, and every tiny branch of every tree was outlined with tiny glittering crystals.

Hoarfrost, Monica had called it. I made her spell it for me.

I’d been in a good mood this morning, biking across the campus with everything looking weird and magical. I had just wrapped up a job so my PayPal account had a nice bump. I was thinking “okay, this is working out. We’ll make the rent on time for once and Monica won’t freak out about her loans.” So of course everything was going wrong. For a few hours, there, I got stupid and forgot it always does.

Like I don’t know better.

I circled around to the back where a footpath ran between the library and the building next to it, and I could safely tap out a message to my in-real-life friend Wheeze, who lived in the house with my brother.

<zen> What’s going on?

<wheeze> They picked everyone up. Except me.

<zen> What for?

Nothing came through on my screen for a minute, and I looked around, feeling suddenly nervous. There were no windows overlooking this spot, no trees or bushes offering concealment. I would have a clear view of anyone approaching out of the fog. Suddenly I pictured myself on a screen somewhere else, acting suspicious and out of place. Looking scared.

“Come on, Wheeze,” I mumbled to myself. There were no cameras covering this spot, not even those sneaky little bubble ones that get tucked into corners and can scan in all directions. There weren’t many spots on campus as private as this, and this was the only one where people wouldn’t think it was totally weird for me to be there.

I knew this because I had stopped by the college’s campus security office and chatted with a student who worked there, pretending to ask about getting a parking permit that I didn’t actually need because I don’t have a driver’s license. Or a car. There was a wall of screens that he was supposed to be watching, even though he had his head down, marking a textbook with a highlighter. People would cross the screens from different angles, not aware that someone was getting paid to catch them picking their noses or scratching their butts. Some of the cameras were indoors, pointed at the cashiers at the cafeteria and the bookstore. Others were in a computer lab, which I had used once when I forgot my power cord. I never went back there again. The student worker was bored so I got him to tell me about all kinds of stuff, from the unfair way he always got stuck working on Friday nights to the fact that they didn’t have the budget to cover the whole campus, leaving a handful of spots surveillance-free, including this one.

My messages to Wheeze were safe, too. We were using end-to-end encryption and an open source program that everyone on the Group vouched for. I’d checked the code myself, line by line, but a panicky voice inside was telling me it wasn’t safe after all. Nothing was.

Oh, Wilson, what kind of trouble had you gotten into this time?

Wheeze finally responded.

<wheeze> “detained in connection with a terrorism investigation.”

<zen>  wtf!?

I was shocked, but it felt like something I’d seen coming, like when you read a story that you know is going to have a big twist at the end and you think, “Wow! That’s a surprise – not.” Only this wasn’t a made-up story. It was a disaster I had predicted but couldn’t prevent.

Wilson wasn’t a braniac. He was a doofus, but he was a friendly doofus whose biggest problem was that he wanted everyone to like him. Basically, he was like a big puppy who wouldn’t behave but didn’t mean any harm. He got into trouble all the time, but it was for stupid stuff, like goofing off in a fancy grocery store with his friends and accidentally bumping into a display of gourmet pickles and having $600 worth of pickles and broken glass suddenly explode all over the floor. Which wouldn’t be that big of a deal if he didn’t keep laughing his head off while the manager tried to impress on him how serious it was.

I mean, it’s not like he would steal a bottle of gourmet pickles. Or hit somebody over the head with it. He wasn’t like that. He was a dork, but he wasn’t a terrorist. He wasn’t smart enough, for one thing.

Wheeze was typing again.

<wheeze> I know, it doesn’t make any sense.

 Only it did. Dang it, I knew, I knew something like this would happen.

<zen>  What about Zip?

<wheeze> They got him too.

I think he’s a rat, I started to type, but I deleted it. What if I couldn’t trust Wheeze? What if someone else was getting these messages? Then I got pissed off and typed it again.

<zen> He’s a rat.

There was another long pause. Wheeze was doing what I’d done weeks ago – running through everything Zip had said, everything he had done.

Zip had crashed on a couch at their house after a protest and had been living there ever since. Everybody loved him. He was older than Wilson and a lot more of a take-charge kind of guy. (Not that that’s saying much. Wilson has trouble taking charge of his shoelaces.) Some of the housemates joked that Zip would have been their leader, if anarchists had leaders. Whatever you wanted to call it, he changed everything. They probably thought it was the change you wanted to see in the world, like those cheesy T-shirt slogans, but it wasn’t like that. Things were getting more serious, more secret. The late night conversations they always had about how messed up everything was and how things should be different were getting real.

Zip was taking their progressive political baloney and convincing them that they should do something about it. Make stuff happen, not just talk about it.

Wheeze didn’t like Zip. He didn’t like the way he was changing the mood of the house, and he didn’t trust his charm or believe his big stories, and all of the political talk made him nervous. But he wasn’t as cynical as I was, so it probably never occurred to him that Zip might be setting them up to be headline news, a reassuring victory in the war on terror.

I had tried to tell my brother that Zip was trouble, that he was the opposite of everything Wilson believed in. Wilson first tried to prove me wrong, then told me I was just jealous, that Zip was the best friend he’d ever had. When I pointed out all the signs that Zip was being manipulative, changing how everybody in the house acted, Wilson got quiet and I could see there was a struggle going on inside him. Then his jaw went stiff, like he’d made a decision that he was scared to tell me about. Instead, he said, barely opening his mouth as if he was clenching his teeth hard, “You’re wrong about him.” He left the coffee shop we were sitting in so fast he bumped into someone else’s table and spilled their coffee all over the place and didn’t even notice. He wouldn’t talk to me after that. Like I had made him choose sides and he hadn’t chosen mine.

Wheeze was typing again.

<wheeze> Do you know for sure?

No. But I was going to find out.

~ ~ ~

He told everyone his name was Zip as in zip ties. The the things police use on people’s wrists when they’re planning to arrest so many of them that they won’t have enough handcuffs to go around. He’d been zip-tied at demonstrations in Miami and Baltimore and Quebec and Milan and London. He also told crazy stories about jails in Havre, Montana and Pikeville, Kentucky. He had hair-raising escapes from guards in rail yards because he traveled a lot and he liked doing it on trains, only without paying for tickets or sticking to passenger routes. Boxcars had better views.

He was cool. He was real. He knew how to brew homemade beer that was actually drinkable. He was everything Wilson wished he could be.

I could tell he had a hero-worship thing going on with Zip from the first time he told me about him. “You should hear about what he did in London,” Wilson told me, his eyes all bright, so happy that he got to be friends with somebody like Zip. They had met at a protest in Chicago where Wilson had lucked out on a great spot on top of a statue of some famous dead guy, and Zip asked him for a hand up. Then Zip asked if he could get a ride out of town. He crashed the next night at Wilson’s house. Well, the house Wilson and some of his friends had been living in, to be accurate. It got foreclosed and they moved in as a protest, only the bank forgot about it or something and nobody came to throw them out. They’d been squatting there for two years.

Until the FBI showed up.

Another big load of anxiety and dread suddenly landed on me.

<zen> They’ll be looking for you, too.

<wheeze> I know. I’m heading out.

<zen> Be safe.

Whatever was going on, I really didn’t want Wheeze to get in trouble. He was my friend, and I didn’t have enough of them to spare. He was smart and funny and the kind of person who would take a bug outside and let it go to avoid squashing it. I was afraid that he would disappear and I might never see him again. At least we had a secure way to communicate.

<zen>  Keep in touch.

What if he didn’t? I thought about what it would be like without Wheeze to hang out with. Be safe. Keep in touch. There would be a big hole full of nothing in my life.

But I couldn’t worry about that now. I had to find out where they’d taken my brother.


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if then else Copyright © 2016 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.